29 April 2011

Royal soap opera

Royal families, especially the British, are fore-runners of reality TV and the longest running soap operas anywhere.


Royal families, especially the British, are fore-runners of reality TV and the longest running soap operas anywhere. Where once they shunned publicity, now they seek it and try to control it, recognising that their continuing existence depends on maintaining a tricky balance between being lofty and mysterious, and being nearly accessible and feeling like distant relatives of us all.

While each royal wedding becomes a special emotional event for many, it's merely part of the ongoing royal repertory. Princess Anne's wedding in 1973, which my mother attended, came during major industrial strife.  Anne refused to process down the aisle followed by “yards of uncontrollable children”. My mother, I recall, was most impressed by the small gold and red velvet chair she sat on, and asked an official if she might take it home with her. Solemnly he replied: "Sadly, no, ma'am, I think we will be needing it again".


In this century the royals have been quite keen to encourage public interest in their weddings. Up to 1947, a royal couple would only accept gifts from friends and others they actually knew personally. This rule was then changed, and there were cheery stories about old ladies knitting tea cosies, and 2500 gifts poured in including nighties and other intimate items. This helped to make people feel the wedding was somehow in the family.

Even Mahatma Gandhi sent a small piece of cloth he wove himself, with the words Jai Hind (Long Live India). And these are unique weddings in that the manufacturers of a huge variety of tawdry souvenirs urge us to buy their wares as gifts for ourselves.

Where's my hat?

In contrast to the huge TV audience who will watch this wedding, in 1923 the BBC, then new kids on the block, asked to sound-record the wedding of the Queen's father, later King George VI (and star of The King's Speech). But they were refused on the glorious excuse from the Archbishop of Canterbury (few were more arch than he) that the service might be heard by disrespectful persons "sitting in public houses with their hats on". How splendidly stuffy ! 

Will it last?

While some folks are earnestly buying royal wedding mugs, tea towels and other souvenirs, others are taking bets on how long the marriage will (or won't) last.  Around the world among those who have mustered interest in the wedding at all, many will hope, charitably, that this time the royal couple will have a long and happy marriage.

Unfortunately, history does not suggest this is likely. Some royal marriages are long, and some are happy, and a few are both. But surprisingly many have been sad, and occasionally disastrous. In earlier times this may well have been largely because the matchmaking was almost entirely political and arranged by others, more like a corporate merger than a romance, so love was an accidental bonus and never the basis for the wedding.

Charles and Di managed to remain together for 15 years, but three of the Queen's four children, and her sister, Princess Margaret, divorced. Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson lasted 10 years, but separated after 6. Only Prince Edward, the Queen's youngest son, has remained married since 1999, and free from scandal.  

The new generation of royals might be spared the now-traditional problems. Perhaps lessons have been learned from the past. This may well be why, wisely, the wooing of William and Kate took such a long time, and presumably more effort has been taken to ensure they are compatible and can remain happy together. They have spent far longer together in various situations than usual, and know more about each other's annoyances and preferences than previous royal couples. Maybe they have had the time to achieve realistic expectations of marriage and of each other, a rare but enormously helpful achievement. Unlike Diana who was only 20 when she was married, like a sacrificial lamb, to the stodgy older Charles; Kate is 29 and both she and her groom better understand themselves and each other, and the real world. The sort of wedding they have planned is more modern, less stuffy and is far more fitting for its time.

Marrying a commoner rather than another royal personage happens more often than might be expected, and such marriages seem to have a somewhat better chance of succeeding. Unless there are greedy and over-ambitious families behind them!

Which fairy tale are you thinking of? 

Many onlookers invest all their own unrealistic and unsatisfied romantic dreams and hopes into such a royal relationship, and hence the hype and memorabilia. It's really very unhelpful when the public and media build it up into a "fairytale" marriage. We must remember that fairy tales usually have very sad or grotesque endings, and rarely include really happy marriages.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are an interesting example of a politically engineered marriage that became increasingly happy. After Albert's early death from an infection, Victoria suffered a very long and severely pathological bereavement. She would have his hot shaving water and gear laid out each morning for years after his death, and withdrew from public life to an extent that encouraged the growth of Republicanism and really threatened the continuation of the monarchy itself.

Rumours persist about how happy the marriage of the current Queen Elizabeth may be, but it has been long and steady. Both George III and Queen Charlotte, and George II and Queen Caroline, had long and apparently happy marriages, perhaps based more on mutual respect and a strong sense of duty than passionate love.

For a really awful example, there was George IV and Princess Caroline of Brunswick, married in 1795. He'd already secretly married a Roman Catholic widow, though this was then forbidden by an English law which banned royal marriage to Catholics. He had such huge gambling debts that he had to accept his father's insistence that he at least pretend to be respectable and marry a good German Protestant princess.

He hated his bride at first sight, and lived apart from her for years. As soon as he became King, he tried to pass an act through parliament to divorce her and remove her royal title. But she had actually become popular with the British public, and the plan failed. He still refused to allow her to be crowned, or even to enter the Abbey during his coronation. She tried several times, but was rebuffed by security staff. She became a useful figure around whom radical politicians could rally to challenge the unpopular king.

When I was a young writer, old-fashioned women's magazines, usually filled with knitting patterns and Royal celebrity news, were called, in the trade, the "Knit Your Own Royal Family" school of journalism. I notice a very successful current British publication gives detailed patterns to indeed knit your own royals, including the bridal couple and a corgi. Something you can't entirely do on Facebook.

References :  An excellent new study of the whole history of such weddings is The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings 1066-2011.  Sarah Gristwood, Alison Weir, Kate Williams and Tracy Borman. (Hutchinson). Also: Notorious Royal Marriages. Leslie Caroll.

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, April 2011)




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